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Foreign Policy

The Failure of Trump’s Iran Policy

Sep 06 , 2019
  • Jin Liangxiang

    Senior Research Fellow, Shanghai Institute of Int'l Studies

Trump’s Iran policy has raised serious concerns among the international community. Trump’s efforts to isolate Iran have failed in almost every aspect. The failures are the result of a fundamentally unreasonable policy, and the United States is no longer in a position of dominance where it can push forward unreasonable policy as it once did.

On August 14, authorities in Gibraltar decided to release the Iranian oil tanker Grace 1 despite U.S. efforts to block the release, according to reports. Gibraltar’s action reverses the decision to capture the vessel 40 days ago at the request of the United States and with British assistance. Shortly after Grace 1 was taken, Iran captured an oil tanker with a British flag in the Hormuz Strait and threatened to strengthen control of the narrow passage. Gibraltar’s final decision was reasonably believed to be out of concern of Iranian retaliation.

Gibraltar may also be under pressure from the European Union (EU). Gibraltar cited EU sanctions against Syria eight years ago as the legal basis of the capture, but the EU did not consider the action as legitimate implementation of the sanctions – but rather as unilateral behavior by Gibraltar and Britain. The EU’s policy toward Iran is sharply different from that of Trump. The EU strongly opposes U.S. sanctions against Iran and is particularly concerned about the security of the Hormuz.

To put it another way, Trump’s administration lost this latest scuffle with Iran. As Mahmoud Vaezi, the Iranian president’s chief of staff, said on August 16, the release of the supertanker Grace 1 is a “diplomatic victory” for Iran.

Trump’s efforts also failed in the initiative to patrol the Persian Gulf. Recent months have seen Iran down a U.S. drone and capture the oil tanker with a British flag. In response, the United States proposed an initiative to organize a coalition to patrol the Persian Gulf. However, despite Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s active promotion in Europe, East Asia and Oceania, no countries except Israel and Britain have shown any interest in joining the coalition.

This also reminded the international community of the failure of Trump’s efforts to organize a Middle East version of NATO. From the outset, the Trump administration has been working to form a coalition of some eight Middle East countries to contain Iran, but till now, no evidence has indicated that this kind of coalition will become reality. No consensus has been reached on the issue of Iran, even in the Middle East.

Trump’s administration has further failed in creating an international front to isolate Iran politically. On February 13-14, the Trump administration organized a conference in Poland on Middle East issues, which was regarded as mainly aimed at isolating Iran. On May 25, the administration requested the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to hold a meeting in Vienna to discuss Iran scaling down its nuclear deal commitments. But contrary to U.S. expectations, it was the United States itself instead of Iran that was isolated in the two meetings. For instance, in Vienna, representatives of member countries criticized the Trump administration for withdrawing from the deal a year earlier, as opposed to Iran.

The Trump administration’s efforts to isolate Iran economically has also delivered few victories. Iran’s economy was hurt seriously as a result of the U.S. cutting off Iran’s international payment channel and efforts to halt Iran’s oil export. But Iran is still exporting a significant amount of oil every month: estimations range from 100,000 to 417,000 barrels per day according to a report in Tehran Times on August 4.

And despite recent hardship, the Iranian people are still living in a stable and peaceful manner as no evidence indicates that Iran is having serious social or political turmoil.
All in all, Trump’s policy toward Iran has failed in almost all aspects. Strategically, Trump’s administration has failed to contain Iran’s expansion in the region. The U.S. has failed in establishing coalitions to contain Iran, while Iran has been able to demonstrate to the world its capability to control the Persian Gulf. Politically, the U.S. has failed in its efforts to isolate Iran. Economically, Iran is far from collapsing albeit amidst historically tough sanctions.

Iran had been seriously implementing the nuclear deal before May of this year, which has been recognized by IAEA reports. As a nation-state with strong national pride, Iran cannot accept renegotiating the deal, particularly under maximum pressure. Iran has reasons to strongly and fiercely resist U.S. pressure given that economic benefits from the nuclear deal were severely reduced and its economy was put in a difficult and precarious situation.

Without support from other major actors, Trump’s Iran policy is doomed to fail. All other significant parties of the Iran deal have clearly opposed Trump’s withdrawal. Decades ago, the United States was able to strongarm its allies into aligning with its diplomatic and strategic agendas. The U.S. bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 is one example, as is its invasion of Iraq in 2003. U.S. influence was apparent even during the Iran deal. In 2003 through 2012, European allies followed the United States in sanctioning Iran though no strong evidence showed that Iran had seriously violated the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The era in which the United States could unilaterally push through its global agendas has come to an end.

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